Daily Archives: December 20, 2005

Linda Hirshman’s feminist script

My Boston Globe column today deals with Linda Hirshman’s article in The American Prospect on “the opt-out revolution.” Since it’s fairly short, I’ll give the whole text here.

First, there were the ”mommy wars” — the much-ballyhooed antagonism between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Then, there was the ”opt-out revolution” — the much-ballyhooed phenomenon of high-powered career women scaling down or giving up careers to raise children. All this is causing intense debate among feminists, who increasingly recognize that gender inequality today has more to do with sex roles in the family than sex discrimination in the workplace. As former Brandeis visiting professor Linda Hirshman puts it in a controversial article in this month’s American Prospect magazine: ”The real glass ceiling is at home.”

For years, most feminists have stressed respect for women’s choices. Now comes Hirshman, saying that ”choice feminism” was a mistake. Feminism, she argues, needs to become more judgmental and tell traditional women that their choices are bad for society (women won’t achieve full parity with men when so many voluntarily leave the track that leads to power), and bad for them because the lives they’re leading allow too few opportunities for ”full human flourishing.” With views like that, no wonder Hirshman made conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg’s list of ”100 people who are screwing up America.” Actually, I doubt that she’s having much effect on America; but her prescription for feminism is screwed up all right.

Hirshman does make some valid points. First, the opt-out trend is real, despite a recent attempt to debunk it by Heather Boushey of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic Policy Research. Boushey notes that the small decline in mothers’ labor force participation has been paralleled among women without children, and is due largely to the recession; but her analysis lumps together full-time and part-time jobs. A woman lawyer who leaves a partnership-track job to work part time as counsel to a community organization still counts as employed.

Second, ”choice feminism” does gloss over some real conflicts in the ”mommy wars.” Companies will be warier of investing in female employees when there is a high risk of women quitting. Former career women who put their energy into motherhood may set impossible standards of maternal perfection (you’re a bad mom if you don’t spend two days hand-making a Halloween costume), and may justify their choice by implicitly denigrating working mothers.

But Hirshman’s solution is no solution at all.

For one, the feminist movement is not a totalitarian regime. It has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their personal lives, as Hirshman wants. (Her script includes choosing a husband whose career is least likely to eclipse yours, and having no more than one child until the government coughs up day care.) And, if feminists start disparaging women’s ”incorrect” choices, women will likely tell them to buzz off. Hirshman’s tone is insufferably patronizing: women, she laments, think they’re making free choices and never realize that their lives are shaped by traditional sex roles and by feminism’s failure to revolutionize the family. Are there really many Ivy League-educated women who aren’t aware of challenges and alternatives to traditional roles?

Besides, many intelligent people may not share Hirshman’s notion that life as a high-priced lawyer or Fortune 500 executive is the best pathway to ”human flourishing.” Yes, life with no significant activities outside one’s intimate circle is incomplete. But Hirshman’s disapproval extends even to part-time workers. And what about women (and, increasingly, men) who don’t work for pay but are active in community work? Don’t many of them meet Hirshman’s standards for good living: making use of one’s mind, having autonomy in one’s life, doing good in the world?

In her simplistic analysis, Hirshman ignores the social impact of working women who don’t follow a rigid model of success — those who leave corporate jobs to start businesses or who work in social service jobs. She also ignores the flexibility of the modern marketplace. In 1998, Brenda Barnes stepped down as CEO of a PepsiCo division to spend more time with her family; six years later, she went back to work and now heads the Sara Lee corporation.

Should feminism strive for more flexible roles and more sharing of family responsibilities? Of course. But the way to do it is to expand options for both men and women, not to narrow women’s options. And, by the way, to deride parenting as a demeaning task unworthy of an intelligent adult is not a good way to encourage men to become more involved fathers.

Acutally, Hirshman’s article reminded me of the infamous comment Simone de Beauvoir made in a 1976 interview with Betty Friedan: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” Friedan, despite being an outspoken advocate of careers and independent life for women, emphatically rejected de Beauvoir’s dictatorial vision of feminism to embrace freedom of individual choice; Hirshman would have us choose de Beauvoir over Friedan.

To expand on a point I only touched on in my column: I share some of the feminist misgivings about full-time parenthood as a long-term occupation. Even aside from financial dependency, I think that, in the long term, human beings need to have a sense of self and identity independent of personal relationships; without employment, or a strong commitment to unpaid work, there is a danger of getting too enmeshed in emotional intimacy. (By the way, it’s worth noting that historically, women’s domestic roles were primarily productive, not relational: In agricultural societies, women were always engaged in economically vital work; in the cities, the wives of shopkeepers and artisans were typically partners in the family business.) I think Freud was right that work and love are the two essential elements of human life. Child-rearing certainly involves work, but its most important component is surely love — and attempts to make it too much like a career run the risk of treating a child more like a “project” than a person in his or her own right.

That said, I think there are many, many ways to maintain a separate identity and to combine work and love besides the full-throttle career that seems to be Hirshman’s ideal. (A 1995 Harris/Whirlpool Foundation/Families and Work Institute poll found that, when asked what they would do if they had enough money to not need to work, only 15% of women and 33% of men said they would choose full-time work; 33% of women and 28% of men preferred part-time work, and 20% of women and 17% of men would choose volunteer work.) What I found most shocking about Hirshman’s article is her contempt for women who choose the “wrong” ways to work.

While I’m at it, I’d like to put in a good word for Lisa Belkin, author of the 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” that ignited the current phase of this debate. In this thread at Alas, a Blog, for instance, Belkin gets it from everybody: Hirshman and her critics. (Hirshman, in this comment, implies that while Heather Boushey’s article showing no spike in mothers leaving the workforce does not rebut her argument — mainly because so many of Boushey’s working mothers are only “dabbling” in work — it does rebut “Opt-Out Queen” Belkin.) But read Belkin’s article. She explicitly acknowledges, even stresses, that most of her “opt-out moms” are not full-time, lifelong housewives but women who move in and out of the workforce and maintain at least some ties to their profession. (Indeed, one of Lisa Belkin’s examples of “opting out” is Lisa Belkin herself: she has made professional choices that have taken her off the track to top jobs at the New York Times but have allowed her to maintain a challenging and satisfying career as a writer.) She also explicitly acknowledges that she focuses only on elite women who can afford the choice to curtail or even give up paid work, and explains why. And she is certainly no champion of a return to Ozzie and Harriet. This is the conclusion of her essay:

This, I would argue, is why the workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them. It is why the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche has more than doubled the number of employees on flexible work schedules over the past decade and more than quintupled the number of female partners and directors (to 567, from 97) in the same period. It is why I.B.M. employees can request up to 156 weeks of job-protected family time off. It is why Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., hired a husband and wife to fill one neonatology job, with a shared salary and shared health insurance, then let them decide who stays home and who comes to the hospital on any given day. It is why, everywhere you look, workers are doing their work in untraditional ways.

Women started this conversation about life and work — a conversation that is slowly coming to include men. Sanity, balance and a new definition of success, it seems, just might be contagious. And instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women. Because women are willing to leave, men are more willing to leave, too — the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent. Because women are willing to leave, 46 percent of the employees taking parental leave at Ernst & Young last year were men.

Looked at that way, this is not the failure of a revolution, but the start of a new one. It is about a door opened but a crack by women that could usher in a new environment for us all.

There are, to be sure, certain things I would quibble with in Belkin’s article. But I think that, overall, her message is a much more positive and relevant one, for women and men alike, than Hirshman’s “To the office — go!”

More: A relevant passage from a post I made over a month ago:

The latest issue of Fortune, which focuses on women business leaders, has an interesting feature on why some women step off very high rungs of the corporate ladder. No, it’s not mommies “opting out” and trading briefcases for diapers, and it’s not women fleeing the corporate world in frustration at the “glass ceiling” (though I’m sure there are examples of both). Most of the women profiled in the article have traded the boardroom for new business ventures of their own, or work in new fields such as politics or entertainment, or travel and other pursuits. In many of the cases profiled, the change of direction is prompted by a life-changing event such as a near-death experience, which presumably leads to some soul-searching and a reassessment of priorities. Women, the article suggests, have more social freedom and more flexibility than men to make such unorthodox choices. The article concludes:

If there’s a single thread that ties together the experiences of these women, it’s that taking control of one’s own life can feel as bold as wielding power in a corporation. “It’s not that they’re abandoning it or walking away,” [former Genentech executive Myrtle] Potter says. “I see it as women really exercising their full set of options. And I think that’s just a gutsy, powerful thing to do.”

I think that women do, culturally and socially, have more options in this regard, while men, once they have reached a certain level, have more rigid expectations of success and staying on a set career track. In practice, this means there will be more men in positions of power, and probably also more men locked into unsatisfying lives.

“Autonomy” and the ability to control one’s own life is one of the things Linda Hirshman finds lacking in the lives of women who “opt out.” But, apparently, for some women — and, I’m sure, for many men as well — power in a corporation (or a law firm) and power over one’s own life are more mutually exclusive than related.


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